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Harry's Gang: An ode to AM radio

Gilligan and his pals relied on it to keep (relatively) sane. Fortunes have been made, legacies created, ordinary people turned into superstars. It’s been central to many movies and at least two beloved TV shows.

It told us about the attack on Pearl Harbor and announced D-Day. It’s how we first learned about JFK’s assassination, and were introduced to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It had a Golden Age, a revival, and, most recently, a metamorphosis fueled by sports and politics. Many worked around the clock, although quite a few knocked off work when the sun went down. It taught millions the national anthem.

But soon, AM radio may be dead.

That’s the prediction of experts. Long a staple of car radios, AM doesn’t work too well in battery-powered cars, so manufacturers aren’t offering AM in new models. As more cars move away from internal combustion engines, it’s likely that AM will no longer be available on most cars in the not-so-distant future. Since it’s such an old medium, easily replaced by FM radio, satellite, and soon (probably) WiFi sources, AM radio’s future is bleak.

BMW, Volkswagen, Mazda and Tesla will stop installing AM radio in electric vehicles because the engines can interfere with AM stations. Ford has announced it will be eliminating AM from all of its vehicles, electric or gas-operated.

Not so fast. I recall Lew Latto, the legendary Duluth broadcaster, telling me — a 16-year-old eager part-timer — that AM radio was dead in 1981. Just a few months later, he converted 970 WAKX into “Al Ham’s Music of Your Life” and the ratings soared sky-high.

In those days, my buddies and I would drive around in Scott Brower’s Chrysler Cordoba all night listening to WLS from across the Great Lakes in Chicago, hearing test pressings of pop songs that wouldn’t be played on the local stations for weeks. Gas had spiked to over $1 per gallon and so we’d often park by the breakwater in Two Harbors, waiting for our friends to show up and quietly discuss the issues of the day, if you catch my drift. The only music I ever got on phones in those days was when I was on hold with a big bank.

WKLK was dominant in town for years. I love the story that Carol Niemi, the kindhearted and wise receptionist at my first job in Cloquet, once told me about the boss. His dad owned the radio station, and Butch sometimes broadcast sports events and talk shows with his buddies. “I don’t think it was root beer they were drinking while on the air,” she said. I sure wish I could have heard that.

AM radio’s days have been numbered for some time. I worked at KQRS in the Twin Cities during the late 1980s, and they cautioned us not to mention severe weather on air because everyone stopped listening and switched to WCCO-AM. Today, people get their weather instantly from their phone. There’s no need to wait through a bunch of commercials to get to the “Weather on the 8s” anymore. It’s instant. We listened to sports on the radio; but last month I took my nephew to the Timberwolves game, and he spent most of his time on the phone watching updates. There was a fight, and he found out who threw the first punch before I did — and I saw the whole thing in person.

This latest AM radio funeral notice may be the last, though. Until that happens, I’ll keep WKLK 1230 on in my office, and I’ll go home at night and play a few songs from these big black discs I keep in a box in the basement. Then, I’ll show my kids how music used to come in digital form on tiny silver discs that were considered a vast improvement over the scratchy black records. They’ll look at me strangely, murmur “boomer” under their breath, and put their earbuds back in to listen to (and watch) their magic telephones.

Kids sure have it easy nowadays.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].